Mark Twain: Misusing numbers

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
 [Quotes and Insights #12]

(As regular C&C readers know, I have recently written several articles on the misuse of numbers and statistics by the overpopulation lobby. I’m sure Mark Twain never thought about that subject, but the following passage from his Life on the Mississippi, published in 1883, seems very relevant today – especially the final sentence.–IA)

“In the space of one hundred and seventy-six years the Lower Mississippi has shortened itself two hundred and forty-two miles. That is an average of a trifle over one mile and a third per year.

“Therefore, any calm person, who is not blind or idiotic, can see that in the Old Oolitic Silurian Period, just a million years ago, next November, the Lower Mississippi River was upward of one million three hundred miles long, and stuck out over the Gulf of Mexico like a fishing-rod.

“And by the same token any person can see that seven hundred and forty-two years from now the Lower Mississippi will be only a mile and three-quarters long, and Cairo and New Orleans will have joined their streets together, and be plodding comfortably along under a single mayor and a mutual board of aldermen.

“There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.”



  • Hi Jeff:

    The only thing harder to explain than humor is satire, and Twain was a master of both. But I’ll try.

    In my view (and Commoner’s) Twain wasn’t criticizing science as such. He was ridiculing a common form of formal thinking that begins with a valid observation and then extrapolates it arithmetically, ignoring other changes and trends or the possibility that new and unexpected things might happen. In his time, that kind of argument was very common among geologists – it was called ‘uniformitarianism’ and Twain was absolutely right to be skeptical about it.

    Commoner writes: “The most serious difficulty is that any such numerical extension necessarily assumes that the future process will be governed by the same mechanisms that have controlled past events.”

    That’s exactly the kind of thinking that led Paul Ehrlich (The Population Bomb) and the Paddocks (Famine 1975) to predict mass starvation in the near future. Populationists today use the same illogic.

    As for climate change deniers using Twain’s words … as the saying goes, even the devil can quote scripture. We shouldn’t abandon a great American radical just because some misuse him.

  • The Closing Circle is like the Das Kapital of social ecology. Things may have moved on since then but very little of it’s profound analysis has been superseded.

  • I’ve always been mystified by Commoner’s use of this Twain quotation, which is actually a very sarcastic swipe at science. Commoner has always had a great respect for the predictive power of science.

    Life on the Mississippi was published in 1883, but the portion of the book from which the quotation is taken had previously appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in 1875 under the title “Old Times on the Mississippi”. It was written during Twain’s “skeptical period” with regard to science in general and paleontology and Darwinism in particular. Not long after the publication of Life on the Mississippi he had a change of attitude and began to embrace science as a weapon against Christian Science and other obscurantist theories.

    In modern times climate change “skeptics” have regularly trotted out the last two sentences of Twain’s quotation above, to sneer at the overwhelming scientific consensus in support of the existence of anthropogenic global warming. Here is an example. Here is another.

    Religious critics of Darwinism like to use Twain’s quote as authority to undermine the science of evolution. Examples: HERE, and HERE.

    I think it misses the mark to use this anti-scientific quotation against the methodology of the overpopulation lobby, which has nothing in common with the scientific method.